Writer Ariel Gore was dismayed by what she viewed as overly narrow conclusions about women’s happiness from studies in the growing field of Positive Psychology—were women truly happiest when scrubbing floors and baking cookies, as some studies seemed to suggest? Were findings about nuns’ positive attitudes helping them live longer applicable to a broader population of women? In her new book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, Gore tackles these questions and attempts to uncover how women can cultivate happiness. TIME caught up with her to find out what she found makes women happy:
TIME: As part of your research, you asked 100 women to keep journals cataloging what made them happy. Are we reliable judges of our own happiness?
Ariel Gore: I think there are different kinds of happiness. We know when we’re happy a lot of the time, but then there are those moments that have more of an afterglow, when the happiness has more depth. For example, when women talked about moments with their children, or [accomplishments] that also included a lot of struggle, it’s more the memory of the event that makes us happy.
TIME: The type of happiness experienced more in its afterglow you refer to as getting caught up in “the flow,” losing yourself in work or a project. How can you cultivate that “flow”?
Ariel Gore: That’s the trick. When you’re in the midst of it, it’s more like a meditation; you’re not like, “Wow, this feels great,” you’re just doing the dance. One thing that blocks flow is self-consciousness. If you’re really worried or anxious about whether you’re achieving it, then it’s not going to work for you. In all of my looking at happiness, one thing I noticed right away is that the opposite of happiness isn’t unhappiness or even depression, it’s anxiety. It is something that can constantly block our happiness, or our chance to reach that sort of meditative state in our work or our home lives. So, it’s important to look at the things that are causing us anxiety. Some of those things we’re not going to be able to do as much about, but some of them we can.
TIME: One of the questions you asked women to answer was how happy they happy they believed their mothers had been at the same age. How reliably do we judge other people’s happiness?
Ariel Gore: Honestly, that was sort of an unfair question for me to ask them—but a very interesting one. It was just when those studies were coming out that were saying that women were happier 40 years ago than they are today, and while I do think that we’re pretty good judges of our own happiness, I think that there are generational ways in which we express happiness. And I think what was especially interesting about the answers to that question was the things that people pointed to as factors in [their mothers’] unhappiness. People felt like they were trapped in jobs or trapped in marriages, or maybe had more kids than they had wanted to and were trapped in all of these different duties. From that question I learned that a lot of women make choices based on how they saw their mother’s choices working out, how they saw the choices of the women elders in their lives working out. There’s some rebellion in that, but there’s also some deep reflection.
TIME: Many of the women who kept journals expressed a concern that focusing on their own happiness was petty in light of all of the suffering and tragedy in the greater world. Did you find that was a common perspective?
Ariel Gore: A lot of women had that reaction either initially or as they started keeping the journals—is it in poor taste to be happy? That’s when I think it becomes really important to look at our definition of happiness. Marion Milner points out in A Life of One’s Own, which was a big inspiration for my book, that happiness is different from pleasure. One positive psychologist, Paul Wong, defines happiness as the capacity to rejoice in the midst of suffering. Both of those views really resonated for me, and really helped me think about happiness more deeply. As Americans, [who are constantly exposed to aspirational advertising] we often associate happiness with this fake cheerfulness, without any consciousness about the violence and seriousness of life. What if happiness is more complex than that? Some of the most powerful images that have been coming from the earthquake in Haiti are in fact images of joy, and they do not appear to be people who are in denial. There is the joy that come in the midst of suffering, I think is the amazing human thing.
TIME: One of the things you conclude through your research is that “happiness is in the pursuit.” How can women make sure that they appreciate the search for happiness?
Ariel Gore: So many of the women who kept those happiness journals noted that the simple fact of concentrating on their own happiness, and paying attention to their own happiness actually increased their sense of well being. Paraphrasing a quote I include in the book, it’s the care or the attention that you pay to your rose that makes your rose so important. Again, how embarrassingly simple. You have to water this plant.
TIME: Part of what inspired you to write this book was disappointment in positive psychology research as it pertained to women. What type of study would you like to see conducted?
Ariel Gore: I’m interested in seeing more studies that include a real sampling of people in the world, that look at resilience and include people who are happy with no logical reason to be so. A lot of positive psychology is stuck in being the psychology of privilege, and I reject that. Researchers are barking up the wrong tree if we’re only looking at what makes life worth living for people who have all of their needs met, are not at war, etc. Finding joy in the midst of suffering is always going to be the key. I think that that’s where we can really start to learn things. Looking for the perfect day is not going to make us happy, because that day isn’t going to come.
TIME: As part of your research you too kept a happiness journal, as well as a gratitude journal. You say you were inspired to keep the gratitude journal by positive psychology studies showing that people who regularly express gratitude—often through their religion—are generally more content. You found that, at the beginning at least, it was difficult to overcome your inner cynic?
Ariel Gore: With the happiness journal and the gratitude journal both, the knee jerk reaction was just to vent. I found that too, looking over old journals, and I thought, how embarrassing! If we really do need a place to vent, that can be helpful, but I don’t think it improves our mood that much to make a habit of just letting out our negative emotions. With both journals, but more so the gratitude journal, I found I was resistant because I thought they were hokey, that somehow positive emotions were for dummies. Having this value judgment that somehow being critical and angry is smarter was a very funny thing to notice about myself. It’s silly, of course, when you break it down, but it was about a week or two before I sort of relaxed and went with it. Finally, you decide, OK, maybe I am a dork, and maybe that’s OK.
TIME: After all of this research, what did you find makes women happy?
Ariel Gore: All kinds of things. Getting lost in an art project. More sex and less housework. Having a really relaxed moment with our kids or friends or partners. Accomplishment, finishing a project. And the things that made one person happy somebody else wouldn’t notice. Take, for example, what made me happy yesterday. I saw this neighbor of mine walking down the street, and from far away it looked like he was walking a chicken on a leash. It made me really happy, I don’t know why, and of course it turned out it was just a little dog, but by then I was happy anyway because I’d had this funny thought that he was walking a chicken. I want to get people thinking about their own happiness, and maybe help people embrace their inner nerd.